Pocket aces: Damned if you do; damned if you don’t

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Once in a while a hand crosses my path that makes me go “hmmm.”

Every Friday on our Ante Up PokerCast we dissect a Hand of the Week that’s sent in from one of our listeners, and this time it was Brian Diebold of Lithia, Fla., who gave us a doozy.
Something that’s very common in southern poker rooms is the Aces Cracked promotion. If you have pocket aces and lose the house pays you $100. In most circles it’s known as “Aces Cracked Gets a Rack.”

Brian was playing in one of our local cardrooms when the following hand happened, and I’ll let him describe it.

“Table is $1-$2 NLHE, nine-handed. I had been sitting there for about an hour and played only two hands, had shown down both (9-9 and Q-Q). Starting stacks were all about $100; I had $143. The small blind and big blind were both a little less than $60. I was UTG with {a-Spades}{a-Hearts} and raised to $6 (This is the same raise I made with 9-9 and Q-Q). It folded around to the blinds, who both called. The pot was $18 (before rake). The flop: {k-Clubs}{j-Diamonds}{9-Diamonds}. Both players checked and I bet $15. Both called. I ranged their hands at either a pair (hit the K or J) or possibly a flush draw. The pot was around $63. The turn was the {8-Diamonds}. Now the SB bets $10 and the BB calls. I called as well. I’m pretty certain I’m beat, they just wouldn’t bet into me without a made hand better that A-A. But now I think if I can keep the pot small, I can win at least the money invested so far ($31) from the promotion plus some extra. The pot is about $90 now. The river was the {4-Clubs}. Now they check to me and I bet $15. Both players called. I put in a total $46 ($25 after thinking A-A was not good), and if I was wrong on my read, I might win the pot anyway. SB turned over 9-9 for a set and BB turned over J-J for top set. I lost $46 in the pot but gained $54 from the house promotion. I only played the hand down because I was confident my aces were cracked. Thoughts?”

Well, this was an amazing hand on many levels, so let’s just start at the beginning. As most of us know a 3X raise in live cardroom cash games almost never thins the field enough to get heads-up or three-handed, despite it being the proper amount to raise. But, in Brian’s case, only legitimate hands (that had money invested as well) called him and any raise other than a shove likely wouldn’t have made 9-9 or J-J fold. So the raise amount is insignificant here. Once the blinds called that’s when the real fun begins as normal poker strategy gets skewed beyond recognition.

The best part about this situation for Brian is the callers had less than $60, so he was freerolling. Why? He had a $100 insurance policy under his card protector. There’s an argument for shoving preflop since no one had Brian covered. At worst he’d break even. But if one of the smaller stacks would’ve called a preflop shove (in this case the J-J) he would’ve netted around $40 from the promotion after the set hit the flop. But in poker we like to maximize our profits, so I agree with raising a normal amount here. Limping has the same effect as shoving, so I disagree with this play as well.

After the flop, things get tricky. It’s a very coordinated board ( {k-Clubs}{j-Diamonds}{9-Diamonds}), so Brian could’ve been beat right there. If he thinks he’s beat then should he shove? At worst he could lose $60 in the hand, but he’d win $100 from the house, thus profiting $40. Brian doesn’t suspect he’s beat here because after he bets and gets called by both players he said he thought they might have paired the king or jack, or they might’ve had a flush draw. So do we like the bet of $15? Remember, he’s guaranteed $100 from the house if he loses; the most he can win if both players commit all of their chips is $120. The odds are very thin for Brian to get both players to put in their entire stacks and have his hand hold up against hands they deemed worthy of shoving. Little did he know both players had slow-played flopped sets.

On our pokercast I initially said I felt he should’ve shoved because if he were to get called it likely would be by one opponent and he’d guarantee himself at least $40 profit (with a chance to win about $70). But then I acquiesced and felt a tiny bet to string them along might allow me to win more than $40 should they call and I still win the pot. By betting $15 and getting called he essentially secured at least $40 in the middle (not counting his $21 in the pot). This way if he wins the hand he’ll get at least what he would’ve won had disaster struck. There’s also the argument for just checking or calling on every street. This way you commit as few chips as possible and you give them every chance to beat you for the cheapest price. The problem here is, if no one has a hand and no one bets then you just win about $18. “What a mind-bender!” as my co-host Scott Long said during the show.

When the turn comes the {8-Diamonds} we have to go on the defensive. I love Brian’s call. No way do you raise because clearly these guys have hand that beat you. Since you know you’re beat why would you put any extra money in here, right? That {8-Diamonds} completes pretty much EVERY draw poker has to offer, and for the SB to bet $10 into us knowing we raised preflop and bet postflop screams we’re crushed. The only thing worse than raising is folding. So I like Brian’s call.

The river bet, however, is another story. Both players checked to him after the {4-Clubs} fell. Why did Brian feel the need to bet $15? Did he think he had the best hand? He even said in his letter that he wanted to keep the pot small to ensure the most from the promotion. If he’s ahead he might get one caller, but not likely. If he’s behind then he just threw away $15 profit. The pot was about $90 at the time, of which only $31 was his. If he checked it down and was ahead, he would’ve netted about $60. But if he lost the hand he would have made $69 because the promotion would’ve paid him $100. Brian emailed me after he had heard the show and admitted it was a “donk bet.”

He made $54 on the hand, but had he taken the check-or-call line of action, he might’ve maximized his profit. In conclusion, an old football adage comes to mind: The best offense is a good defense. I think Brian should’ve taken the passive approach and squeezed the money from the promotion. Had he checked the flop, the SB still would’ve only bet $10 on the turn (with a call from the BB). Since the blinds had checked the river there’s no denying they would’ve checked the river in a scenario where Brian didn’t bet the flop. Had this been the case Brian would’ve only committed $16 to this hand and netted $84.

Of course all of this advice comes after knowing the cards involved. But even if the blinds didn’t have monster hands, Brian saw a very coordinated flop that only got more dangerous on the turn. There’s no reason to bet this hand, and every reason to let them catch up for a cheap price.

— Email Chris at chris@anteupmagazine.com.